Proposed Rule is Improvement But Still Not Perfect
By Mike Conlon
Aftermarket parts and service providers, including rebuild-ers, are being increasingly stymied by their inability to obtain vital diagnostic and repair information about the vehicles or parts they are servicing. Whether the information is totally unavailable, provided only after much searching or inquiry or available but uneconomically priced, the effect is to deny the provider the ability to repair the vehicle or to repair or manufacture the part needed to complete the repair. While always a problem, the availability of information through third party providers and trade association technical departments helped to offset stoppages in the flow of information from the vehicle manufacturers.
However, due to the increasing proliferation of part numbers, the sometimes frustrating complexity of the engines and other parts in new vehicles, and the need for many parts to coordinate their functions more closely with other parts in the same system, more information in greater detail is needed. At the same time, computer controls and coding, vehicle security systems and sometimes extensive claims by manufacturers that information is proprietary, have combined to restrict access to vital information.
No better example of the barricades which can be erected to impede information access is the requirement contained in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments that all light duty vehicles be equipped with on-board-diagnostic (OBD) systems. OBD systems allow for repairs to be made sooner because the malfunction or deterioration of parts monitored by the system is known at any earlier time. But, for a service technician to adequately correct problems identified by these systems, he must be able to access the information stored in the on-board computer and to obtain sufficient additional information to allow him to understand the computer output and adequately diagnose and repair the problem. Parts manufacturers and rebuilders must also have sufficient information to ensure that their parts function in a fashion which will not arbitrarily cause the OBD system to register a malfunction.
Fortunately, the same legislation which created the OBD system requirement also created the framework for providing information access to aftermarket providers. The law itself mandates information access, at least for those doing service and repair, but left the details of what was to be provided and how it was to be provided to EPA.
EPA’s initial attempt at interpreting the law’s requirements was published in 1995. While well-meaning, this first effort left much to be desired because information was either not made available, was hard to locate or in many cases was too expensive to purchase. However, these shortcomings did not create a major problem for the aftermarket because the 1996 and later vehicles which were equipped with advanced OBD systems were still being serviced and repaired largely by the dealers. As these vehicles started to come out of warranty, the full impact of the rule’s deficiencies became painfully obvious to any mechanic who was working on a vehicle with OBD-monitored parts.
As a result, on June 8, EPA published a proposed revision to its OBD access rule which included many substantial improvements. One of the major requirements of the proposed rule is that each vehicle manufacturer must establish an Internet web site where all of the information for the emissions-related parts monitored by OBD systems in its vehicles can be accessed. Among the requirements for the sites are that:
• They provide access to the full text of all emissions-related information;
• They be updated at the same time as the manufacturers’ dealership sites;
• They allow a search by model, model year and various key words or phrases to make information easy to find;
• They be accessible by common, readily available software which is not proprietary to the manufacturer and provide links to viewers or programs necessary to access the site; and
• They have no limits on the modem speed necessary to connect to them.
The proposed regulation also addresses the issue of cost. If the rule is finalized as EPA proposes, each Web site must allow for short term (less than 24 hours), mid-term (up to 30 days) and long term (up to a year) access, at the discretion of the user. Access for each of these periods must be provided "at a fair and reasonable price." EPA identifies 10 factors which it will consider in determining whether a particular price is fair and reasonable. They are 1) the cost to the manufacturer of preparing and/or providing the information; 2) the type of information; 3) the format; 4) the price charged by other manufacturers for similar information; 5) the differences among manufacturers; 6) the quantity of material; 7) the level of detail; 8) the cost of the information prior to the new rule; 9) value discounts; and 10) inflation. Missing are any criteria which relate to the user rather than the information provider. EPA is also silent as to what, if any, profit the manufacturer can make in providing the information.
The EPA rule also sets a limit for each type of access. These limits are $20 for short term access; $300 for mid-term and $2,500 for long term. Efforts are being made now to impress upon EPA the need for much lower limits.
The information required to be included on the Web site has also been clarified and includes the following categories of information:
A) Manuals, including subsystem and component manuals, technical service bulletins (TSBs), recall service information, diagrams, charts and training materials; B) OBD system operational information that describes functional characteristics of the OBD system and emission-related components; C) Emissions-related diagnostic procedures (manufacturers who utilize their manufacturer-specific scan tool to provide emissions-related diagnostic procedures cannot require connection to the vehicle to access this information); D) Any information on other systems that can directly affect the emissions system within a multiplexed system; E) Information regarding any system, component, or part of a vehicle monitored by the OBD system that could in a failure mode cause the OBD system to illuminate the malfunction indicator light (MIL); F) Information needed to start the vehicle when the vehicle is equipped with an anti-theft system or other system that disables the engine and prevents it from starting after the completion of an emissions-related repair; and G) Manufacturer-specific emissions-related diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs) and any related service bulletins.
Currently, the diagnostic tools available from third party tool manufacturers do not include all of the enhanced diagnostic information which can be found in the vehicle manufacturer’s own tools. While the current regulations do allow aftermarket technicians to buy these enhanced tools, if he services or repairs numerous makes of vehicles, the cost to obtain all of the diagnostic tools for them is prohibitive. Under the new rule this enhanced diagnostic information must be provided to the generic tool manufacturers so they can incorporate it into their tools. This should permit the creation of generic tools which have all the diagnostic firepower of several proprietary tools combined into one unit.
The new rule requires that the vehicle manufacturers ensure that the aftermarket has the software applications necessary so that one reprogramming tool can be used on multiple makes and models.
There are still some problems with the proposed rule, but efforts are being made to work them out with EPA which recently seems more receptive to the concerns of the aftermarket. The rule should become final later this year.